An Ode to 64

Paul McCartney wrote “When I’m Sixty Four” when he was 16 years old. How did he know?

At age 63 and 364 days, I sang his song to Darcie.

Will you still need me, will you still feed me…?

“Yes,” she answered. It’s reassuring. When you’re almost 64, you do worry about this stuff. It’s just a year from Medicare age, right?

You’ll be older too…

We’re all time travelers – it’s just a question of how far we get. My father died at age 63, and my brother was crippled by a stroke at 63. So getting to 64 is something to celebrate in my family.

I can be handy mending a fuse, when your lights have gone…

We’re not exactly useless, after all. In fact, some of us still feel like we’re actually about 29, and can do even more than mend fuses. Take Sir Paul himself…rocking the world at a ripe old age. When he was 16, I don’t suppose he dreamed he’d be doing that.

One thing hasn’t changed. Young McCartney wrote the song because he hoped to write a Broadway musical. His band wanted nothing to do with the song, until they finally relented and sang it as a Lonely Hearts Club Band. Now, it’s a song that I could never get my band to play, because it’s too cute, and stodgy, and…it hits a little bit too close to home.

Give me your answer, fill in a form…mine forever more…will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?

Even now, the Beatles are providing the soundtrack for our lives.

When I'm 64

The first Earth Day, 1970

The first Earth Day snuck up on America. Sure, we all knew about pollution – a year earlier a polluted river in Cleveland had burst into flames – but no one had ever tried to build an environmental movement. On April 22, 1970, we stumbled into a mass movement to save the earth.

For the first time, the magnitude of the situation was laid out clearly, in a way that even we high school students could understand. Pollution, overpopulation, looming shortages of food, water and energy – it was astonishing to realize what a mess we were making.

The brilliance of Earth Day was in applying the lessons of the civil rights and peace movements to environmental issues. There were teach-ins, demonstrations and political campaigns. It was up to us to bring the planet back into balance. Briefly, it was the most important thing on earth.

Briefly, because a week after Earth Day, the US invaded Cambodia and all hell broke loose. There were soon students dead in the streets, and even burning rivers seemed secondary. We lost sight of the lessons of Earth Day, and a backlash took hold. The seeming consensus evaporated, and we began to hear how questioning “progress” was un-American. It was years before the momentum was regained.

On that first Earth Day, there was no talk of global warming. Of all the grim scenarios we imagined, warming the planet sufficiently to melt the ice caps was beyond our imagination. We imagined freezing in the dark as our oil ran out, or choking on car exhaust. We didn’t know it was the invisible gasses that would threaten the planet, but we did learn that “progress” could be dangerous.

Looking back, Earth Day 1970 seems like a brief optimistic moment when we – our generation – felt we could fix things before it was too late. But since then the world has barreled down a road to an overheated, sea-drowned slow-motion apocalypse that now seems inevitable.

We can’t say we weren’t warned.

In Some Way Outa Here, I tell the story of Earth Day, 1970, and the impact it had on my suburban town.Earth Day 1970

Merle Haggard’s Okie song

Merle Haggard was a music giant – great voice, songs and guitar. He will be remembered well.
But he will especially be remembered for one song, “Okie from Muskogee.” It’s an ode to small town living and conservative values, right? Nope.
Haggard wrote it as a spoof, a parody of what he considered small-town small mindedness. He didn’t expect it to be taken seriously, and he didn’t expect it to be a hit. It was, both. He said later that he regretted writing it, and that he was “dumb as a post” when he released it.
The song was taken up as an anthem by conservative America. It fell right into Richard Nixon’s newformed narrative of a “silent majority” that backed his policies but was too polite to say so – some think the song inspired it.
With lyrics like…
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards out on Main Street
We like livin’ right and bein’ free
…it was taken as a declaration of war on people with long hair who were against the war in Vietnam.
Nixon cultivated the growing divide carefully, unleashing his attack dog Spiro Agnew on anyone who disagreed with him. It blossomed into his “southern strategy,” a carefully phrased appeal to working class whites to abandon the Democratic party. It was based on the resentment against rebellious young people and blacks, and it was extraordinarily successful. It led directly to the wall between right and left that we know so well today.
Merle Haggard’s song was a brick in that wall, but he didn’t put it there. Let’s remember all the other songs he wrote, and remember the man fondly.

Merle Haggard

There’s a lot more about the music of the times in Some Way Outa Here

Hair Wars

Would you go to war over your hair?
Some of us did. When we fought to stop the war in Vietnam and tried to overthrow “mainstream culture” in the process, hair became one of the battlegrounds.

The Beatles started it. Previously, boys had short hair and a “longhair” was a professor or a “classical music snob.” After the Beatles first appeared on TV on February 9th, 1964, long hair became a symbol – first among musicians, then among the rebels we called hippies, and then it became a symbol of rebellion, especially against the war.

Along the way, the symbol became an “issue.” Boys with long hair were called “fags” and “queers,” a curious proposition when most gays were trying desperately to blend into the mainstream. Adults often assumed that boys with long hair were drug users. (OK, some of us were, but hey, they were alcohol-users, right?)

Some of us fought screaming battles with our parents about who was in control. School dress codes were enforced with rulers and sometimes with scissors. You could be sent home – or to the barber in the case of a friend – if your hair touched your ear or your collar.

Girls’ hair wasn’t judged by length, but it was still a symbol. At a time when girls routinely rolled and twisted their hair into carefully concocted styles, long, straight hair was a symbol of rebellion. If it wasn’t naturally straight, it could be ironed to look “natural.”

When a play about the antiwar movement and the “counterculture” arrived on Broadway, it was called – what else? – “Hair.”

A camaraderie grew among longhairs. You felt you could trust someone who had long hair, especially if it was a little scraggly. It meant you had similar values, liked the same music, and spoke the same language. “Far out,” “right on,” and “outasite,” were good…but even your hair wouldn’t help you if you said “groovy.”

And then suddenly, as we turned the corner into the 1970s, everyone had long hair. At first, it seemed like we had won, and that peace and love would reign. Instead, the symbols of rebellion had become the new normal. The war wound down, and the sense of rebellion passed. Eventually, long hair became unremarkable, found most predictably on rock stars.

Hair is still a potent symbol of who we are. But it rarely starts fights or inspires revolutions any more.

You can read about my own hair wars – and how we won – in Some Way Outa Here.

Got any good hair stories of your own? Reply below!

beatles hair-songs

We all went to the moon…and back

When John Kennedy declared that America would send people to the moon, a grand drama began. It rolled out like a TV serial, in episodes that captivated the nation. We thought we knew the ending – but you couldn’t be sure.

When an American went into space – Alan Shepard, who happened to be my mother’s childhood playmate – the race to get to the moon before the Russians was on. Each adventure that followed was a little more ambitious: orbiting the earth, spaceships rendezvousing, the first spacewalk – Ed White was too awestruck to return to the capsule – and then, astonishingly, tragedy, as three astronauts were incinerated on the launch pad. This wasn’t a movie. And the Russians pressed on, relentlessly, with their own exploits.

But America didn’t stand still while NASA raced to the moon. At first, we were pretty innocent, seduced by visions of The Jetsons and afraid that the Russians would steal our future from us. By the time Apollo 11 was launched, the country had been transformed by the civil rights movement, rock and roll, and, most of all, the war in Vietnam. The war, which had raged for four years by 1969, changed our view of the world, and we began to focus more on our own planet than on getting to another one. Barry McGuire’s hit “Eve of Destruction” told us “you may leave the here for four days in space, but when you return it’s the same old place.”

Like most young Americans, I was bedazzled by the early space flights. Every time a new mission was launched, we watched it in school on small black and white TVs. We looked on breathlessly, counting orbits, until the astronauts splashed down. But as the flights became longer and more routine, I began to lose interest. NASA tried hard to keep our attention, staging live-from-space astronaut shows that culminated in the spectacular broadcast from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968.

The lunar landing of July 1969, the fulfillment of Kennedy’s dream, rekindled the excitement for a brief moment. It wasn’t just America – the whole world was galvanized as Neil and Buzz moonwalked across our little screens. For me, it was bittersweet – I loved idea of exploring space, and I wanted desperately to float weightlessly, watching the earth below. But the “race” – beating the Russians – by now seemed silly, and I was having trouble justifying  such costly adventures while a war raged and earthlings went hungry.

The next moon landing came as hundreds of thousands of Americans converged on Washington DC for a massive demonstration against the war, and the astronauts were no longer in the headlines. Only the nail-biting drama of Apollo 13, a failed mission that became an unlikely triumph, recaptured our attention.

In the end, the most remarkable journeys ever taken – to the moon and back – were reduced to mere entertainment. When the drama ended the audience turned to another channel.

But the space program had a profound impact on those of us who grew up in the 1960s. It gave us a national goal that we believed in – for a while – and it very literally shaped our world view. The image of the whole earth from deep space taught our generation that we were all sharing the same small planet.

That’s where Some Way Outa Here begins.

earth moon Beatles